I don’t know whether it’s a British thing, or a generation thing, or a mum thing, but both my mother and my grandmother were (and in my mum’s case, still is) incredibly fond of declaring a windy, cold winter’s day as being ‘too cold to snow’.
Now anyone who has ever studied or read anything about climate will know that this statement is complete rubbish. It is *never* too cold to snow. I’d fully agree with them saying that it was too warm to snow, but not too cold – if there were such a thing, how, for starters, would you account for the winter snow storms in the poles, not to mention all the other places in the world whose idea of a warm winter’s day is when it gets above -20?
The cold weather we’ve seen this week in Scotland, though, had me wondering – if there’s no such thing as ‘too cold to snow’, where on earth did this old belief come from? If any science-minded people out there think I’ve got it wrong, please correct me, but I’ve got a feeling I know what the aforementioned ladies were on about. It feels coldest in the UK in winter when the sky is a clear, bright blue and the sun is out. And because the sky is clear when we get these freezing temperatures, the old wives’ tale will have us believe that ‘too cold to snow’ is a possibility. When we get clouds come over us, it usually warms up a bit. Hence the belief that it has to be slightly milder to snow.
Of course, it’s rare for the UK to have snow like other parts of the world get. What would be an unnoticeably light dusting in some Canadian cities can cause UK cities to grind to a sticky, slushy, sodden halt. We generally don’t have a long winter as is understood in Canada and parts of the USA. We have something that could charitably be called Autumn (or Fall) that lasts from August through till February, then we get Spring, which lasts from March through til July. In the ‘winter’ months it rains. A lot. Winter is grey, dull and dismal most of the time. But the thermometer hovers around 3 or 4 degrees most of the day, not really dipping below zero except overnight and first thing in the morning.
Snow that sticks and glosses the countryside in a glistening white blanket is actually a pretty unusual event in the UK. It only happens when just the right combination of cold and moist happen above us, which, considering cold usually is bright and dry and moist usually dull and mild, is a pretty rare event. We’ve got snow here at the moment, visible from our house – that’s looking uphill, by the way – our local hill, Criffel, is 569 metres above sea level. At the level of streets and houses and so forth, any snow that does fall usually melts within hours, and dull and wet almost always prevails.
So I guess when mum used to tell me, ‘it’s too cold to snow’, she was right, in a roundabout way. What she was actually trying to tell me was that the air was too dry and the moisture levels were too low. Which actually makes perfect sense. “It’s too cold” is a shorthand explanation for how the UK climate generally works. And then when you add into the mix the fact that it’s more common in the UK to have a snowy Easter than a white Christmas, the picture is complete – it doesn’t snow in the winter because if it’s cold, it’s too dry, and if it’s moist, it’s too mild. The best ‘snow’ weather comes in early spring, as the temperatures (allegedly) rise. Go figure.